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Booker to Outsider from Small Publisher

28 October 2002

The 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was awarded this week to an outsider, Canadian Yann Martel, for his Life of Pi. With a new sponsor and a more transparent approach for the judging panel, this has been a year of changes for the Booker. One judge, David Baddiel, argued that the award should go to a more popular novel and criticised the number of serious novels submitted.

There were complaints from the panel that 130 novels were too many to read and complaints from publishers that the rule allowing each publishing house to enter only two candidates was unfair, especially for the big houses. Although titles can be 'called in' by the judges, this procedure is not foolproof, as was shown by the omission of Irvine Welsh's new novel. The publishers with large literary lists not unreasonably claim that they are in a cleft stick: if they do not enter the 'big names' on their list, they risk losing them, but how do they choose amongst their authors? The writers themselves are clearly not treated fairly. The chair of the judges, Lisa Jardine, also criticised this rule: 'It is mad that every publisher gets two books'.

The win was also seen as a triumph for the small Scottish publisher Canongate, as it is rare for a novel from a small publisher, let alone one outside London, to win the prize. For Yann Martel himself, this will be the key to his writing career. As well as winning the £50,000 prize, he can expect a massive increase in the sales of his book, 50,000 copies of which are already being reprinted in the UK. It is not an obvious winner and many commentators had thought the prize would go to the distinguished veteran William Trevor with The Story of Lucy Gault or the successful young Sarah Walters with her readable Fingersmith. But the judges' unanimous choice of Life of Pi, with its surreal storyline of a man adrift with various animals, including a tiger, does represent a different approach. As Lisa Jardine said: 'We've chosen an audacious book in which inventiveness explores belief.'